The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin discharging water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers Wednesday because of rising levels in the lake.
Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Army Corps Jacksonville District, announced the move Wednesday afternoon, explaining the lake has risen above 16 feet.
“The rise is going up more quickly than we want,” Kelly said. He argued the Army Corps, which regulates Lake O’s water levels, is worried about hurricanes toward the end of season and other potential wet weather.
“There’s still a significant storm threat out there. We have not ended the wet season. And so because of that — and because of the way the lake is rising — what we need to do is release water out of Lake Okeechobee, stabilize that rate or rise and if we can, turn it.”
Keeping the lake too high runs the risk of flooding during a storm. It can also cause stress to the Herbert Hoover Dike, which is undergoing upgrades that are scheduled to be complete by 2022. Those upgrades could allow the lake to safely be kept at higher water levels.
Discharges from Lake O can lead to the spread of toxic blue-green algae. That has worried residents in the past, though Kelly argued that current algae levels inside the lake aren’t at excessive levels.
“Today looks pretty decent,” Kelly said. “Holistically, it has not been a bad algae year on the lake.”
Even with the discharges beginning Wednesday, Kelly still said he expects the lake to rise a bit higher. The Army Corps is initiating the releases — which are set to last a few weeks — to help curb the rate of rise and hopefully keep the lake below 16.6 feet.
“I don’t anticipate the lake to stop rising immediately and start going down. I still expect a rise over time and it all depends on when the wet season ends.”
James Yocum, the Army Corps public affairs specialist, told Florida Politics the releases are being made under the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), which was set in 2008. That plan tries to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet absent special circumstances.
“We’re using LORS 2008 but it’s been adjusted over the years based off of other deviations,” Yocum said.
“There was a deviation that just got approved for harmful algal blooms. It was approved last month or maybe four or five weeks ago. And it was basically allowing us a little more flexibility so that when there’s algae on the lake, or high potential, it gives us an opportunity to defer and bank releases.
“But we can’t really use it in this situation or this time of year. It’s more for when we’re looking in the spring, or when we’re looking right before a rainy season or in the middle of summer when there’s a lot of algae on the lake.”
Yocum said that deviation hasn’t yet been released publicly. He cited federal laws requiring the document be accessible to people with disabilities, arguing that has delayed the release.
“It’s a very big report,” Yocum explained. “We’ve got the person working on it, but it’s just taking some time to get it all correct and ready.”
Yocum didn’t commit to a firm timeline on release but said it could happen within “a couple weeks.”
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a constant critic of those discharges, praised the Army Corps for not initiating discharges earlier in the year. He still did fire some shots at the Army Corps, asserting the goal should be “zero discharges.”
“The fact that we avoided discharges until now, instead of getting them for months on end starting around the 4th of July, is proof that allowing Lake Okeechobee to lower naturally during the dry season works,” Mast argued.
“Nothing more than zero discharges is acceptable when public health is at risk, and I will keep fighting to make that a reality. I urge the Army Corps now to utilize full operational flexibility, move more water south and end these discharges ASAP.”
Keeping the lake low can mitigate the need for continuous discharges. But if Lake Okeechobee is too low, that can also create serious issues. Farmers rely on the lake as a water source, as do several local municipalities, such as West Palm Beach. That access requires enough water to be available inside the lake.
Kelly said Wednesday he was sensitive to concerns about the spread of algae, however, and would work to minimize the duration of the releases.
“My commitment is continuing to regulate the release as we need to for the shortest duration possible.”